Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Scribal Culture

Modern archivists have often pointed back to the scribes of the ancient world as proof of how old their profession is and how cultures have tended to value the creation and maintenance of documents. A new book by Karel Van Der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) provides evidence that partly dispels the former claim, while upholding the latter.

Van Der Toorn recounts the development of the Hebrew Bible as part of the efforts of the scribal workshop of the Second Temple between 500 and 200 B.C.E. In order to understand this scribal workshop, he examines writing and the work of scribes in the Ancient Near East (Egypt and Mesopotamia).

Noting that the Bible is the monument produced by the scribes, Van Der Toorn also compares scripture to archives: “The books of the Bible were not designed to be read as unities. They rather compare to archives. A biblical book is often like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, or chronology” (p. 16). Rather than thinking of books, we should imagine a “stream of tradition.” The Hebrew Bible is the “collection of texts written, studied, and copied over the centuries by scribes in the Jewish centers of scholarship. They are the collective property of the scribal community; the Hebrew Bible is their legacy” (p. 26).

Van Der Toorn provides considerable information about the scribes and their culture. They wrote books mainly for other scribes; they were cosmopolitan, borrowing from scribes in other societies; they were formally educated (in Egypt, this training lasted twelve years); they were employed at the temples and in the royal courts; and the scribal positions often stayed within families, passing from generation to generation. Some of these characteristics challenge a direct comparison between modern archivists and the ancient scribes; for example, the “scribes were not merely penman and copyists but intellectuals.” The scribes were the “academics if their time” (p. 57). Moreover, in Israel, scribes were part of an exclusive group: “The skills of the scribes – of reading, understanding, and interpreting – commanded general respect. The scribes held the key to the symbolic capital of the nation” (p. 106). We certainly cannot argue today that archivists command such respect.

Most of Van Der Toorn’s book, as you would imagine, deals with the actual compilation of the Hebrew Bible. He describes the scribes’ work and the Biblical texts they produced. He includes case studies on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and the idea of revelation in these scriptures. Van Der Toorn is not seeking to make a contribution to archival studies or archival history, but as we learn about these ancient scribes and their approaches we gain some insights about the origins of writing systems, the transition from oral to written systems, and early preservation of texts. We also learn about studying the history of archives and texts. As Van Der Toorn argues, “If we want to get acquainted more closely with the Hebrew scribes – their way of thinking, their values, and their working methods – the best way to do so is by studying the texts they produced” (p. 143). Studying the documents is also the way in which we can gain an understanding of the history of recordkeeping.